The smell of the desert after rain, especially in areas with creosote bush, is one of the nature’s most pleasant aromas. However, my personal exposure to desert smells is balanced by the odors which arose from a javelina carcass I placed near my house one summer to attract turkey vultures. It didn’t bring in many vultures but produced a mountain of maggots and was an unforgettable olfactory experience.
There is a wild corner of the Sonoran desert where I often go to do my work or simply reflect. Only a few hunters, prospectors, biologists and cowboys know the area. In all the years that I have gone there, I have rarely seen another person. It is a landscape of rugged mountains and broad sweeping valleys. As I go there now in my imagination, my mind’s eye surveys familiar territory. Looking out over the saguaro-studded desert, a flood of memories comes to me. Each portion of my view reminds me of a different part of the rich tapestry of experiences I have had here. Each adventure had its own challenges, successes and failures. Places like this are rare and I feel lucky to have this refuge. Its wildness gives me the freedom to make my own choices and learn my own lessons. Whenever I go to this sanctuary, either down the rutted, dusty roads, or in my thoughts, my spirit is renewed and I am reminded of the magic the Sonoran Desert has shown me.
I learned about the Sonoran desert’s ability to change its mood suddenly while I spent the night on one of my photography towers, awaiting the morning light. I was awakened by an approaching lightning storm. It occurred to me that being on top of a metal tower was not the right place to be at that time. I quickly climbed off the tower and tried to find my way back to my truck, which was about a mile away. I got hopelessly lost and wandered around the desert the rest of the night, in the dark, doing my best to avoid cacti and rattlesnakes. When the sun rose, I got my bearings, and finally found my truck.
Some of the most outrageous adventures I have had in search of photographs happened during trips to the Gulf of California. With all my gear loaded in a kayak, I explored the desert near the coast in Baja California as well as a number of remote islands for up to a month at a time. Some of the highlights of these trips included seeing desert bighorn sheep near the summit of Isla Tiburon and endangered chuckwallas on Isla San Esteban. I paddled on mirror flat waters one magical day next to a fin whale and her calf. After weeks of living like a cave man, I met with a Japanese squid fishing boat, and was invited aboard for a steak dinner washed down with Japanese beer. It was strange to climb the ladder down to my boat in the dark and return to the stone age. On the last day of one of the longer trips I encountered a line of dolphins swimming in the opposite direction. I passed them for hours and never saw the end when I pulled in to Santa Rosalia. There must have been thousands! I had to cope with intense storms, called chubascos, which instantly turn calm seas into treacherous white-capped waters. I often hiked for miles in search of water. Before figuring out how to catch the local fish, I ate gulls to stay alive. I caught them with a handline baited with the guts of the the fish I had caught. I reeled them in by hand as they struggled to fly away. There must have been thousands! Instead of photography as I’de hoped, these trips usually involved mostly paddling and survival. Although the memories from these trips are vivid, there are few photographs to show for months of effort.
Harris’ hawks have always been one of my favorite desert dwellers. They have been called wolves of the desert because of their habit of hunting in “packs”. I have often watched two or three of them chasing rabbits near my house. They are also remarkable in that young from previous breeding seasons often help their parents raise their brothers and sisters in the following years. I have often photographed Harris’ hawks and other birds of prey in their nests in tall saguaros. I did this by carrying heavy metal scaffolding deep into the desert, building a tower and placing a blind on top, from which I took my photos. On one calm spring day, having just completed one of my towers, I stood proudly on top. Suddenly, a violent dust devil arose nearby. It moved closer, picked up steam and came directly over me! I held on tight and the tower began falling toward the cactus covered desert floor! Fortunately, we met a palo verde tree on the way down that broke our fall. I felt very lucky to walk away unharmed. Imagine what would have happened if the tree hadn’t been there and I had landed on a cactus instead! The tower wasn’t so lucky, and was badly bent. I now secure my towers at each level as I build them. Whenever I travel down the dusty road where the nest was, I stop to kiss the palo verde, which didn’t fare so well when the tower crashed on top of it. I learned an important lesson that day– expect the unexpected — because the Sonoran Desert is predictably unpredictable. This event also supports the adage that “pride goes before a fall”.
Throughout my years as a wildlife photographer, I have often felt as though I’ve formed some sort of spiritual connection with my subjects. Of course I realized that it could just be my imagination at work. However, recently I’ve come to know that these interspecific exchanges are very real and affect both photographer and animal alike.
For years I have stalked white-tailed deer in the woods near my home in upstate New York. Stalking is no longer necessary as they are now accustomed to using my backyard as part of their daily routines. This summer, deer were my constant companions as they came to eat the apples falling from my trees. Now in the winter my property affords them protection from hunters. I’ve taken hundreds of photos of them at various times of the year. My favorite time to photograph them is in the winter, especially when it’s snowing.
Although they are quite common, I’m still completely fascinated by them and love having them around, even though they seem to consider the supposedly deer proof shrubs that I’ve planted to be deer candy. It is a small price to pay for the interactions that I truly cherish.
Only recently I became aware that the deer have been observing me just as closely as I observed them. I don’t know how they’ve done it, but they’ve picked up on some of the human customs in an uncanny way. I know that this will sound unbelievable but just this holiday season I received and documented, incontrovertible evidence that my deer can understand, appreciate and even celebrate human traditions. One buck typically appears near Christmas and I’ve nicknamed him Rudolph. No, he doesn’t have a shiny nose. Rudolf and his companions are so used to me that I often talk to them. During the holiday season I might even sing Christmas carols as I do my work in the backyard or even as I’m photographing the deer. Little did I know that the deer were listening. Little pitchers really do have big ears. Just the other day, as I was sweeping off the porch, I heard a distinctive clinking noise coming from the nearby woods. When I looked up I couldn’t believe what I saw: Rudolph was approaching with his white tail held up high and his antlers adorned with Christmas tree ornaments wearing a wreath around his neck! Needless to say I was speechless and to this day I still don’t know where the ornaments came from. However, from that point on I knew that we understood each other.
What followed in the ensuing days could only be described as an amazing interspecific cultural interchange. I followed the deer through the snow in the woods and they revealed much of their ways which had previously been a mystery to me. The deer themselves were curious to learn more about humans and their behavior. Rudolph was particularly interested in my son’s sports car and was completely keen on learning to drive it! “Why not ?”, I thought.
So how could a cloven-hoofed ungulate drive a sports car? Surely there would be untold technical difficulties, but I was committed to do what I could to make it possible. Fortunately, the car is a convertible so there was no problem accommodating antlers. I had to make some modifications to allow hooves to maneuver the steering wheel and shift the manual transmission. With the technical changes complete, as you might imagine, it also took quite a lot of patience and time to show Rudolph how to actually drive the car. We had to go out in the wee hours of the morning on back roads so the neighbors wouldn’t see what was going on and possibly report it to the police. I don’t believe that the state of New York would issue a learner’s permit , much less a driver’s license, to a wild cervid.
In spite of all the obstacles we persevered and when it was finally time to let Rudolph have a go on his own, he asked if he could take his twin brother along to visit their family in a nearby forest. The site of the two of them driving off together was one of the more remarkable things that I’ve ever witnessed and photographed. I am including one of the photos that I took that day as proof that what I have written actually took place. I do make the following disclaimer: I entered the “Driving home for Christmas” headline with Photoshop. Otherwise, everything else is completely natural and un-manipulated. It is absolute proof that animals understand humans and that unexpected miracles still take place in this world, especially during the holiday season. I wish everyone, animals and humans alike, a most happy and festive Christmas!
As an animal lover, zoologist and nature photographer, I have been saddened by the destruction of many of the natural areas that I love in the name of “progress”. This flavored my view of human nature while growing up and turned me into a bit of a misanthrope.
I recently became enthralled with rocks and minerals, a sort of “geo-awakening”, and like many of my specimens, I’ve been metamorphosed. I originally viewed rocks and minerals only as photographic opportunities. Then, they became an avenue to vent my collector’s instinct and my house is filled with them. They now satisfy my long-standing desire to be surrounded by nature’s creations and are a lot easier to care for than fish and reptiles which previously served this purpose.
Then, unexpectedly, minerals became “Minerals!” and I began to see them as expressions of nature’s underlying order. My world view further evolved when, through my hunger for knowledge, I learned that not only were minerals beautiful, but almost all of them have been put to use by humans in some way in order to help build the civilization that we now enjoy. Understanding how diverse minerals are, how hard they are to find and extract from the ground, much less figure out how to use, has changed my thinking about humans.
I would go further in praise of humans. That we now consider the well-being of other species with which we share space and devote energy to other environmental issues is a further testimony to our wisdom. The fact that social tolerance and equality are light years ahead of just a few short decades ago is another positive aspect of humanity. Meanwhile, art, music and literature document the human condition with untold poignancy.
On this cold November day, the gas furnace warms my feet. What might as well be called my mineral-mobile sits in the driveway while I write on the 66+ mineral computer and stop to answer a call on the equally mineral-rich mobile phone and I find it hard to judge my species harshly. I basically live like a king of old, thanks to the Earth’s great bounty, and the inventive geniuses that have figured out how to make it work for us.
Admittedly, I haven’t listened to news in over 6 months and there is room for improvement. Polyannish it may be, but I have to say, hip hip hooray for humans!
Of all the photographs that I’ve taken in over two decades as a professional wildlife photographer, there is one sequence that has attracted the most attention. It is a series of photographs of a European white stork trapped in a plastic bag, which I took in a dump in southern Spain.
I spent several years photographing storks throughout much of the country. On one trip I was lucky to stay at a friends flat on the ocean. Instead of basking on the beach as any right-minded person would do, I drove 2 hours inland every day to wallow in a putrid dump where storks congregate to feed on food scraps. At first the odor was unbearable,but I soon got used to it. When I paused to eat, it somehow felt really unnatural to throw the trash on the ground, even though I was smack in the middle of one of the biggest dumps in Andalucia!
I had been working at the dump for about a week when I saw a hapless stork, perched on a tire, trapped in a plastic bag. I was thrilled when I was able to drive my car close enough to take a series of photos as the stork struggled to release itself from its plastic prison. With sunset looming, I decided to try to help the bird.
I left the car and started wading through the mess, edging toward the trapped bird. I was surprised that it didn’t move away as I closed-in. When I reached the bird’s side I was worried that it would lance me with its sword-like bill. I bent down to grab the bag at the stork’s feet. It was a windy day and as I lifted the bag it filled with air and the stork suddenly flew up and was liberated! I will never forget how moved I felt as the snow-white stork rose up into the pure blue sky, free from the squalor below. The stork was given a second life.
The photos that I took that day have since taken on a life of their own and like the bird itself, they have taken flight. First they won prizes in the only two photo contests in which they have been entered: the British “Wildlife Photographer Of The Year” and the University of Missouri’s “Photographs of the Year.” To many, these photos have come to represent the serious problems that plastic bags can cause animals. They have been used around the world, often without my permission, for everything from billboards to books, and have even inspired embroidery art displayed in high-end galleries in London. They have also been sought after by celebrities.
When Oprah used the photo, on the set of her Earthday Show some years ago, it was seen by many people. One of those who saw it was so inspired that she founded a company making reusable grocery bags (in order to minimize the use of plastic bags). We became friends and she wrote to Oprah about the experience and got a free trip to Australia as a result. She tells me that as they walked along the beach, Oprah spoke of how she still remembered the photo. You just never know who’s going to see your photos and what might result.
It isn’t often that life gives you the opportunity to do something to help the things that you love in a significant way. In the case of the stork trapped in a plastic bag, I was blessed to be able to help not just this single bird, but through my photographs, hopefully thousands of creatures that might be saved from similar predicaments, if these photos can help to raise awareness of the need to limit our plastic footprint on the planet. I once bought some reusable grocery bags and after paying for them the clerk actually asked me if I would like them in a plastic bag! We are creatures of habit and it’s time for our habits to change when it comes to plastic. This is a lesson that was made clear to me that day in Spain when the universe opened my eyes, by talking to me directly, through my lens.
It was a late winter morning when I spied a raccoon walking across my porch. I dropped what I was doing and went outside to investigate. Being primarily nocturnal, I was surprised to see her abroad during the day. The truth is I don’t know if it was male or female but I feel within my rights to invoke artistic license and assume the latter. In any case, I followed her until she climbed a large maple tree next to the house. I spent most of the day watching and photographing my raccoon. Initially she retreated to the upper branches and took several naps throughout the day. After some hours she descended the trunk and took shelter in a hollow at eye level. There she struck some of the most fetching poses possible in a setting made for raccoons. After I’d had my way with her she apparently tired of life as a procyonid supermodel and descended the trunk and wandered off into the nearby woods. I absolutely couldn’t believe my luck! Would anyone believe that I hadn’t hired a rent-a-raccoon and plopped it in some kind of Rocky raccoon movie set? A beautiful raccoon strangely appears in broad daylight, and poses in an idyllic setting right beside my house. Too good to be true!
I was thinking about the unlikelihood of my good fortune as I walked down the hill to pick up my car that was being worked on in a garage a mile or so away. I was kind of in a hurry as the garage would soon be closing. On my way I walked by a feed and pet store. Not having much time and not needing anything from such a place, it was strange that I decided to pop in. This is where things get even stranger. When I looked in the store one of the first things that greeted my eyes was one of those hollowed out carpet lined trees for cats. What was in the hollow cat tree? You guessed it, a raccoon doll! I had just photographed, for the first time ever, a raccoon in a hollow tree and was thinking about raccoons in hollow trees as I entered a store that I was inexplicably drawn to and saw nothing less than a raccoon doll staring at me from a hollow cat tree! If this doesn’t prove the existence of God at least it proves that life contains delightful surprises. I bought the raccoon doll and the cat tree which sit beside me as I write.
I met Bill Sheldon on the side of a steep mountain in the Yukon where we were both looking for Dall sheep. Neither could believe that the other was there, such an effort it was to get to where we stood. We were both a little disappointed to have someone disrupting our solitude. We found the sheep that day and we also found a friendship based on the love of the outdoors, wildlife and photography.
I learned a lot about Bill over the years. I heard about how his family owned the Mepps lure company; lures which brought me many years of fishing pleasure during my youth in Colorado. Bill ran the company for a number of years before he retired at the ripe old age of 45. I remember him telling me about the fictitious spokesman for Mepps called Shep. He told about how at fishing conventions, people would occasionally tell him about how they’d had a great fishing adventure with Shep, a man that doesn’t exist, in Alaska or somewhere else. Bill gave me a belt buckle with Shep’s name inscribed on it, which is one of my prize possessions.
One important moment in Bill’s life came when, as a senior in high school, he pole vaulted 12’6” to win the most important track meet of the year for his team. I learned about his brilliant academic career at the University of Arizona, where he majored in girls. Then there was the time Bill and some of his friends, who would go on to become judges and other respectable pillars of the community, went out of the bathroom window, rather than pay for their meal, at El Charro Mexican restaurant in Tucson. I met his loving wife Barb, his two daughters and their families and many of his friends. I stayed in his beloved cabin in Wisconsin and fell in love with his beautiful dog Rikka. Bill loved to come over to my property North of Tucson to photograph birds and other wildlife. I could see how persistence was part of his nature as he offered to buy my property on many occasions in spite of my best efforts to let him know that it wasn’t for sale. We spent a lot of time in the desert near Tucson. One of the more memorable projects we shared was photographing Harris Hawks on a nest. When we had just finished constructing the high metal tower on which we were going to place a hide to use to photograph the birds, a dust devil, or mini tornado, descended upon us. I was at the top of the tower and Bill was halfway down as it began to topple in response to the unexpectedly violent wind. Bill was able to jump off but I rode the tower down from the top, able to write this story only because a Palo Verde tree blocked my fall. I remember spending a couple of nights with Bill in a tent in the upper Peninsula of Michigan. Some of the odors and noises that issued from Bill those nights gave me empathy for his wife, and a desire not to repeat the experience.
I remember when Bill’s hands started shaking. At first this was attributed to “essential tremors”. When it was recognized as Parkinson’s disease, Bill just kept going, in response to this and various other health problems that plagued him. I never heard him complain. I never heard him ask for sympathy. He just kept going. This was good and bad depending on the context. For example after a certain point, driving with Bill became a terribly nerve-racking experience. But that was Bill, he just kept charging on. The last time I came to Tucson I was surprised to hear that Bill’s condition had deteriorated and that he was taken to a care home. It was even more of a surprise that I was there when he called his wife Barb and, based upon what he was saying, she began to realize that she was losing him. When I went to visit him at the home, by chance, he was talking about me when I got there. His message was that I was good at what I did but I was cantankerous. I think he was right, at least about the cantankerous part, because I’m almost as cantankerous as he was. I stayed in his house at that time and took care of his dog, Rikka, while Barb and he were in Phoenix. I remember looking around as I was getting ready to leave their house, seeing the legacy of a once vital man. His bicycles, his fishing, skiing and camping gear, his photographic equipment, his photographs on the wall; artifacts of a life devoted to the outdoors, photography, his friends and family. That was when the loss hit me the hardest.
As I write this homage to a fallen comrade, I can only hope that he is up there with Shep, fishin’ and photographin’ and having a good time and waiting for his beloved family and friends to follow him. Adios amigo!
John Cancalosi, Ithaca, New York, February 18, 2013